Winter 2013

Red Mountain reaches new heights

Red Mountain. Seemingly, it’s on everyone’s lips these days, both from a glass and in the news. In case you haven’t heard, here are the big stories that have come out of Red Mountain, a ridge in Washington’s eastern Yakima Valley:

Harvest: Grapes ripened quickly and beautifully. The entire appellation was harvested pretty much by Oct. 1.

California coming: Duckhorn Vineyards, one of California’s most celebrated wineries, has announced that it will be creating a Washington winery using Red Mountain grapes. It will release its first wine, a Cabernet Sauvignon from the highly touted 2012 vintage, by Labor Day 2014.

Land grab: In November, the Kennewick Irrigation District auctioned off 670 acres of land in and near Red Mountain that it has owned since the 1940s. The land sold for $8.2 million. The auction became quite dramatic when a mystery buyer outbid all others and purchased all 670 acres. The buyer turned out to be the owner of the Vancouver Canucks hockey team in British Columbia.

So why is Red Mountain so hot right now? Let’s take a closer look.

Red Mountain is Washington’s smallest American Viticultural Area at just 4,040 acres. Of that, perhaps 1,400 acres are planted to wine grapes. Year after year, it is consistently the warmest region in Washington wine country. Where other areas might struggle with ripening in a cool year — such as 2010 and 2011 — Red Mountain thrives.

Though I normally despise comparisons with other regions, Red Mountain can pretty accurately be considered similar to California’s Napa Valley: It’s finite, land prices are high, grapes sell for a premium, and wine from the region can be priced as high as any in the state.

Let’s talk about grapes. Is the fruit from Red Mountain better than other regions of Washington? I could argue both ways.

Syrah: Red Mountain Syrah can be pretty special, especially for those looking for a big, ripe style. But the western edge of the Wahluke Slope also can provide similar levels of ripeness and complexity. And Syrah grown in the relatively cooler Yakima and Walla Walla valleys can become wines of amazing character.

Merlot: It’s hard to beat Red Mountain Merlot, but we see some great Merlot out of other areas of the Columbia Valley and Wahluke Slope, too.

Cabernet Sauvignon: Ah, the king of wines and the wine of kings. Red Mountain Cab is pretty spectacular, but the sweet spot in Washington might well be the southern Horse Heaven Hills. Where Red Mountain is gaining an edge is more aggressive use of different clones of Cab.

Other red varieties: We taste Rhône varieties such as Mourvèdré, Grenache and Cinsault from Red Mountain, as well as Italian grapes such as Nebbiolo, Sangiovese and Barbera.

To me, this shows Red Mountain doesn't necessarily have a great edge over other areas in any one variety, but as a whole, has the ability to produce higher-quality grapes overall.

I’ve been fond of saying over the past decade that someone looking to get into high-end grape growing in Washington could go to the Wahluke Slope and get three to four times as much land with all the water they need vs. Red Mountain, which has suffered from a serious shortage of irrigation. But that is changing, as the Kennewick Irrigation District is bringing water to the mountain next year.

Still, prime vineyard land on Red Mountain can sell for as high as $30,000 per acre — before the grapes are planted or a drop of water arrives. Plan to spend double that to get up and running. While that’s only 20 percent of what land in Napa Valley acreage would cost — if you could find any available — it’s pretty high by Washington standards.

So what makes Red Mountain so special? It’s that combination of ability to ripen, southwest-facing slopes, perfect soils and scarcity. It also has panache. Longtime vineyards such as Ciel du Cheval, Klipsun, Kiona and Hedges now mingle with some of the state’s best young plantings, including Quintessence, Heart of the Hill, Scootney Flats and Red Heaven.

Some of Washington’s best wineries rely on Red Mountain grapes for their high-end bottlings, including Betz, Quilceda Creek and DeLille. And from an architectural point of view, Red Mountain wineries rival any on the West Coast. Between Hedges, Kiona, Terra Blanca, Col Solare and Fidelitas, tens of millions of dollars have been invested on Red Mountain.

At this point, the only things holding back Red Mountain from being a truly world-class wine destination are food and lodging options. Sure, the nearby Tri-Cities helps fill the need, and some vacation rental businesses have popped up to provide an experience. But Red Mountain deserves a 50-room luxury lodge or European-style hotel. That could be coming. Of the 670 acres of land auctioned off in November, more than 150 are not in the appellation and aren’t going to be terrific for growing grapes. They are near the freeway and would be perfect for Red Mountain’s version of the Oakville Grocery, the French Laundry or Calistoga Ranch.

It exciting to watch Red Mountain as it develops into one of America's best and most-recognized wine regions.

-- Andy Perdue is the editor and publisher of Great Northwest Wine and wine columnist for The Seattle Times. Learn more about wine at www.greatnorthwestwine.com.

This story was originally published December 21, 2013 12:00 AM.

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